Being one of Singapore’s most prominent authors, The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) resident playwright Haresh Sharma is no stranger to breaking new ground and creating works which question the notion of an ideal Singaporean. Take for example plays such as Off Centre and Good People, where the protagonists – mental patients and drug addicts – hover on the boundaries on society. Or perhaps the recently staged Poor Thing, which features the immensely ugly side of Singaporeans. Yet the playwright has a way of making these characters humane and real, so much so that we may even see ourselves in them.
Although Sharma’s latest work Gitanjali [I feel the earth move] deviates in that the focal point shifts from Singaporean to more universal themes, the play still represents a pushing of boundaries. As an interdisplinary and intercultural production, the challenge is to merge different artistic forms such as classical Indian dance, drama and music.
The play centres on the complex and intricate relationships between several characters such as a dance teacher, her protégé and her son. Influenced by the poetry of Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Vasatham star Ebi Shankara and Life! Theatre Award nominees Sharda Harrison and Padma Sagaram will also be part of the production. In this interview, Sharma lets us in on the inspiration behind Gitanjali, challenges involved in the conceptualization process, and the relevance of the play to audiences in this day and age.
Popspoken: Tell us how this production was conceptualized, and why the decision to stage it now.
We have been collaborating with artists from various disciplines ever since we started. In fact, most of our works are interdisciplinary. The new element in this project is the collaboration between dancers and actors, as well as contemporary and traditional art forms. This is the first time we are working with dancers and actors both performing together. It’s been very heartening to see how collaborative the artists are, all willing to step outside their comfort zones. The project was first discussed in October last year. We wanted to work on an interdisciplinary production involving various acclaimed artists. We decided on Gitanjali by Tagore as the starting point for the production.
We spent many hours with the different artists discussing the project – Tagore’s poetry, his life and influences. There was a movement workshop with musician Bani Haykal and performers Sharda Harrison, Raka Maitra and Jereh Leung, led by choreographer Ole Khamchanla. We had group discussions with some of the artists including actors Ebi Shankara and Padma Sagaram. We also approached Charlene Rajendran to be the production’s Dramaturg. We discussed how to work with a group of artists comprising dancers and actors.
During Phase 1 in April this year, through a series of improvisations, we created a contemporary story; one in which Tagore’s poems could be infused. I wrote a script which combined acting and dramatic scenes with dance and movement. Original music was also created by Bani Haykal. We spent Phase II composing the work. Actors had to dance and dancers had to act. Everyone was being pushed out of their comfort zones.
By the end of Phase II, Gitanjali [I feel the earth move] was born. Phase III begins in August where the final rehearsal process will begin. The team had also grown to include other designers such as Brian Gothong Tan [multimedia], Wong Chee Wai [set] and Adrian Tan [lighting].
Popspoken: Could you elaborate more on the influences behind Gitanjali (I feel the earth move) such as Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry. How will the poetry be contextualized as part of the performance?
We came across Tagore and his writings when we started researching this project. We find his thoughts powerfully relevant to us today despite the fact that he lived in a different era. His thoughts are transcendental and challenge our parochial mindsets, a wisdom we can use as globalised citizens today. In our research, we came across Tagore’s collection of poems, Gitanjali. We fell in love with some of the poems in the collection. I selected a handful and circulated them to the artists. The production will weave Tagore’s life and poetry, as well as original scenes of fictional characters. It is a celebration of art and literature in theatre.
There is a simple storyline in the play. Savitri is a fierce and determined traditional dance teacher based in India. She runs her own academy and has pinned all her hopes on her best student Priya. However, Priya has other plans for herself. She has decided to migrate to Canada and start her own dance company focusing on issue-based contemporary dance. Savitri tries to get her son, Shankara, to help but he decides to leave for Singapore with his wife Nandini. Eventually, Savitri visits Canada and Singapore to make amends with her student and her son.
Popspoken: What were some of the challenges you faced integrating different performance styles (e.g. classical Indian dance and music) into the script?
The first thing we did was try not to force anything together. Any kind of integration had to be organic. For example, Priya is Savitri’s best student. Through her character we were able to incorporate some beautiful Odissi dance movements which the dancer Raka Maitra is a master of. The teacher’s son is played by actor Ebi Shankara who is also an accomplished and award-winning singer. So we created opportunities for him to show off his vocal prowess.
Our choreographer, Ole Khamchanla, also created contemporary movement which incorporates elements of traditional dance. So the process has been an eye-opening one, requiring a lot of patience and openness, with a positive spirit of collaboration.
Popspoken: Your plays are known for bringing to light many potent issues affecting Singaporeans. How does this production fit into your repertoire?
This is somewhat different because the play is not so much about ‘local issues’. But there are still strong and complex characters, which I like, and the issues are more universal. I am fortunate to have the support of a theatre company like The Necessary Stage. Since I started writing and working full time with TNS in 1990, I have had the opportunity to write the stories that I want, in different genres, incorporating different disciplines, and on different issues. Each production pushes me as a writer because there are always new challenges to overcome. And if I am challenged I feel I am working harder to create something powerful for the audience.
Popspoken: Gitanjali also explores themes of freedom or loss through several complex relationships. Was there any particular inspiration behind the characters and relationships portrayed?
Because Tagore was all about art and literature, I knew I wanted these elements to feature prominently in the play. Hence the storyline is focused on a dance teacher and her struggles – with her favourite student Priya, her son Shankara and his wife Nandini. We spent many hours discussing the characters and making them complex, giving them heart and soul. We sought inspiration from one another – our experiences, life events; and from real-life stories of dancers, teachers and relevant individuals.
Popspoken: Lastly, how do you hope this production will impact or connect with audiences?
There are many things in the show which audiences can connect with. The play looks at universal themes such as relationships between mother/son, teacher/student etc. The play is not only performed through acting but also through dance. Using these disciplines, the play is both dramatic and meditative; there are light moments with humour, as well as poignant scenes where characters bare their souls.
The production will appeal to anyone who loves art and literature. The play itself is inspired by Gitanjali, a series of poems by Rabindranath Tagore which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are many beautiful dance sequences, as well as recitations of poetry and ‘live’ music. It will be a visually stunning experience, with some food for the soul.
For more information or tickets to the show, click here.
Photo Credits: Caleb Ming/SURROUND